As Australia’s commercial solar boom rolls on – and as more big industrials switch to renewables through major off-take deals – attention is beginning to shift to gas, and how it can be displaced in manufacturing and industry by cheaper and cleaner alternatives.
This was the subject of the recent Electrifying Industry Summit in Melbourne, hosted by think tank Beyond Zero Emissions to coincide with the launch of its Zero Carbon Industry Plan.
The comprehensive 132-page plan aims to show that with Australia’s unparalleled solar and wind resources, all of the nation’s industrial processes could be electrified in a way that would not only boost the productivity of manufacturing but make it cheaper.
In fact, by switching to electrical heating, BZE argues it is possible to double the efficiency of many industrial processes – and halve the energy input needed to produce goods as diverse as beer, brick and cast metal.
A separate major report, published just one week earlier by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Energy Efficiency Council of Australia, and the Australian Industry Group, put a similar argument.
That report urged Australian manufacturing companies, reeling from the soaring price of gas, to switch to solar and other technologies.
“It is no secret that manufacturers are relatively large energy users,” said CEFC chief executive Ian Learmonth. “The good news is that clean energy solutions can make a very real and positive difference.”
Amid these gas-busting clean energy solutions – and there are a number of them detailed in the BZE report, including heat-pumps and electromagnetic heating – a not-so new technology called PV Ultra looks poised to make its mark.
The company behind it, Melbourne-based RayGen Resources, still counts itself as a start-up, but has been around for some years now, and on our radar at RenewEconomy since 2012.
As we have reported, the technology developed and patented by RayGen founder Dr John Lasich, combines low-cost heliostats and top of the range, ultra efficient gallium arsenide PV cells, used in space, to make what it says is a gas-beating heat and power resource.
In the rush to ever cheaper – and subsidised – commercial solar PV, the Victoria-made technology has been overlooked. But as gas prices continue to rise, and as industry looks to cut costs and emissions, it could be its time to shine.
Like other concentrated solar technologies, PV Ultra works using a field of mirrors that track the path of the sun and focus its light onto a receiving tower.
But from there, the technology does things a little differently.
“What we do that’s different, is that we have a PV panel, using very high efficiency PV cells, atop the tower so we convert the light directly to electricity,” says RayGen’s head of sales, Will Mosley.
“And then because we have to actively cool this panel (using water), we generate heat (hot water) as a byproduct.”
The technology certainly has its fans – including the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. It has won two ARENA grants: one for $2.9 million in 2016 to develop a pilot project in Victoria; and another $4.8m just over a year ago, to boost manufacture and commercialisation of its PV Ultra product.
It has been trialled at various scales in both Victoria (Bendigo) and China, and proven at commercial scale for 3MW of co-generation, providing energy to its first customer (Scato Plus mushroom producers in Newbridge, Victoria) since 2015.
That initial project has been expanded and several other projects are said to be in development.
In 2018, RayGen’s “blue ocean strategy,” as Mosley wrote recently in a company blog, is to first address the largest white space in the renewables sector: industrial co-generation.
And it has some added executive muscle to help drive this mission, including wind energy veteran Jorn Hammer (formerly of Vesta) who has joined the company as its “capable and passionate” new CEO.
But RayGen’s immediate commercial focus is on the food and beverage manufacturing industry, where it hopes to get some traction with a solution it says is 40 per cent cheaper than incumbent solar co-generation solutions.
“One-third of Australia’s energy requirement is for heat, and provided by gas. So this is really a significant problem, and it’s one where we’re not seeing a lot of solutions,” Mosley said.
In Victoria, he adds, heat requirement is 75 per cent of total end-use energy requirement for manufacturers.
“We’re seeing solar, hydro, panels, turbines. We’re not really seeing that sort of adoption in the heat side of the problem. So we need to start addressing that.
“We’re able to come in with a lower price point than existing natural gas, which is quite attractive to our customers,” he said.
How much cheaper? Mosley says the company’s in-market PPA price for 3MW of PV Ultra – that is 1MW AC and 2MW thermal – is 8c/kWh and $A8/giga-joule (GJ) post-tax and prior to subsidies, as compared with similar C&I-scale estimates for PV and solar hot water.
The available subsidies via the state and federal white certificates schemes (eg LGCs and VEECs) can reduce the unit cost by a further 25 per cent, depending on year and location.
Part of the cost advantage comes from the cleverly designed small footprint of the technology, which requires around one-quarter of the land to comparable solar PV and hot water cogeneration solutions.
The tracking mirrors – sourced cheaply from existing production chains, as are the towers – are pile-driven, self-powered and fully autonomous, so require no concrete foundations and no electrical wiring. And only a few pumps and pipes are required to deliver the hot water.
This means the whole set-up can be installed easily, and on potentially difficult terrain such as flood-prone or rocky areas. It is also well-suited to farm settings, where sheep or other farm stock can gaze safely among the mirrors, which reflect the sunlight, and so produce no heat island effect.
But the technology does have some limitations. One of them comes with what Mosley describes as its “pole in a paddock design,” which at this stage somewhat dictates the company’s focus on regional manufacturers.
Customers need to have space for the installation of a mobile phone tower-sized structure, a couple of hundred heliostat mirrors and, ideally, the set-up needs to be within 5km of the end use, to make best use of the heat resource.
The temperature of the hot water produced by PV Ultra is typically around 95°C, a temperature Mosley says is perfect for dairies that need to pasteurise, or food processing, or abattoirs that need to do sterilisation.
“The other attractive thing about that temperature is that it’s really easy to store … it’s fully storable, so we put it in a hot water tank and store it for use in the factory when it’s needed,” he adds.
The hot water is stored at atmospheric pressure, a solution Mosley describes as “very low cost and very low risk” and able to provide “hours to days” of storage.
And there are plans in the works to build on the technology’s storage capabilities, with what the company is calling Storage Ultra.
This works by storing heat from PV Ultra – still as hot water – but using excess electricity from the PV to drive an industrial electric chiller to produce an ice slurry. The cold is stored cheaply as an ice slurry.
When dispatchable electricity is required, the thermo-dynamic potential of the heat and ice slurry are combined to drive a turbine and produce electricity.
Mosley says RayGen will be piloting Storage Ultra next year, with a commercial product in 2020. And beyond that, the company also sees significant opportunity in district heating networks, in fresh water production using multi-effect distillation, in chilling, and in air-conditioning.
But for the meantime, the focus remains on winning over manufacturers looking for a cheaper alternative to gas.
“Renewable heating solutions are the ‘undiscussed protagonist’ of the global effort towards decarbonisation,” Mosley says.
Of the 30 largest businesses in Australia’s food and beverage manufacturing sector, he notes, 93 per cent actively monitor and publish their carbon emissions, and 56 per cent have outlined specific targets to reduce CO2 emissions across their entire manufacturing process and energy consumption.
“Our intermittent electricity and stored heat technology really is a great solution, right now.
“We’re really excited about the future and getting a lot of interest.”